Proud Vicco lad Cahill Bell-Warren reflects on a life time of surfing the J-Bay of the south.
You can surf all over the world, you can score dream sessions at even dreamier waves, but nowhere will shape you quite like your local. It’s the place you come to know better than any other, that you love and hate and learn from constantly, and it leaves an imprint on the salty side of your soul that can’t be erased. In this series, Tracks talks to a number of prominent surfers about their relationships with the waves that made them the shredders they are.
This time around, Surfing Victoria Coaching Director Cahill Bell-Warren talks about his love affair with Winkipop.
Tracks: Growing up, what made Winki such a special place for you?
CBW: Winki shaped me as a surfer. I grew up at Bells Beach, so while the other groms from the Torquay region were getting their early morning grind on at Jan Juc, Dad and I were at Winki every single day before school. Day in day out, any size, any wind, any tide, Winki has waves. After school I used to ride down from home and surf till dark, then try hitch home because I hated riding up the hills.
Describe the setup for those who don’t know it.
It’s a long right reef point setup. It has a few defined take-offs, mainly Uppers the top section and Lowers the lower section. Lowers can go pretty far and finishes at the Valley, one of my favourite zones when it’s big.
Lowers is the premiere section when its over three-foot. It’s referred to as J-Bay’s brother, another long cold fast right.
Tell me about her moods.
Winki is surfable on all tides and sizes, meaning she is very moody. There are so many different faces to Winki, it runs at different speeds and shapes depending on the conditions. My favourite is when it’s five-foot plus, mid to low tide, stiff NNW wind and super greyed-out and overcast. I had a photo of it on my wall all grey and serious when I was a kid and they are the days I look forward to most. Photographers hate it, but I love it.
How’s the wave helped shape your surfing?
Because I surfed it day in day out, I didn’t go left as a kid. Genuinely I never went left. If I wanted to surf somewhere different, I’d surf Bells. As a developing junior it caused a few problems. I hated beach breaks especially if they didn’t have a defined take-off. I’d be able to find a right anywhere, anytime. On the flip side, it separated me from the rest of the kids in the area. Torquay is surf industry central, when the reefs turn on everyone who is anyone in the industry is out there. I knew that if I could perform out there it would end up leading to opportunities for me and it did. When I was young one of the older legends called me the Prince of Winki. At thirteen I made a conscious decision to be that guy. Why not be that guy? I just ran with it and ignored the beaches and lefts even more.
What about the local vibe growing up, what was that like?
I first started surfing out there eighteen years ago. A lot has changed since then. It was only a third of the crowd it has now, so the mood was much mellower. I was one of the only kids out there, so the older boys really looked out for me and made sure I got more than my share of waves. It was and still has a pretty tight crew of Winki guys and I love that. With the defined take-off areas, there is still space for a hierarchy, a pecking order and a sense of structure which is really important. I’ve always been conscious of treating others well and the power of conversation.
Each break has its own hazards and dangers. What are you watching out for at Winki?
At one-to-three-feet Winki is becoming a bit of a zoo. Without a doubt the single biggest hazard out there is the standard of other surfers. Torquay’s population is booming, absolutely booming, and as a result the line-ups have become ridiculously crowded really quickly. The wave doesn’t have a crazy sweep, a back rock Snapper take-off or an element of natural selection and as a result inexperienced guys are the biggest risk. When there is swell, the paddle out around the button can get hairy and a bit of a deterrent for some. The other main danger is big days on high tide getting washed in and stuck in Mark Philippoussis’ cave.
Growing up at Winki, who were the biggest influences on your surfing out there?
Right off the bat, the enthusiasm and support from my Dad was my biggest influence. His stoke and froth even on the shit days was infectious and it definitely kept me in the water more than I would otherwise have been. From there, I always looked up to the guys on the best ones on the best days—Chooka, T-Ray, Pin, Flinno, Eages and the like were those guys. There have been so many guys I’ve looked up to out there over the years. I’ll never forget when I was thirteen, Johnny Hawken paddled out and I turned to Dad and said, ‘Shit not Johnny, he will get all the good ones.’ Dad’s response was ‘Why don’t you be that guy on the good ones?’ and I completely changed my movements through the line-up. From there, I shadowed Tony Ray for years, it must have driven him insane! When it’s six-foot plus, he’s the guy on the bombs. He sits ten meters out and wider than anyone and is always in position for the wave of the day. He always wore a hood so I’d sit just off him where he couldn’t see me and I swear he didn’t talk to me for years. I’d just be hoping there would be two big waves in a set, or I could get one before he got back out. He may not have the biggest wave count, but he’s on the best ones and that’s my approach on the good days out there.
Waves change over time, whether it’s through changes to the way the waves themselves break or to the amount of people that surf them or for any other number of reasons. What changes have you noticed at Winki during the time you’ve been surfing it?
Winki has a beautiful reef that hasn’t really changed over time. It’s just the number of people out there. If it’s under three-foot and offshore it’s still the most fun wave in town, but I won’t touch it especially on weekends. I have a short amount of tolerance for unsafe surfers in the line-up and I don’t even bother now. It’s really sad to say that, but I’d rather have a safe, fun time somewhere else with my mates and save Winki for when it’s small and onshore, or firing, when every man and his dog isn’t out there.
Best ever session out there?
I have no idea of the best session I’ve had out there. I’ve done too many hours over the years to single one out. There was one day in June 2011 that was probably the biggest and cleanest I can remember. It was giant and hollow, and only a small crew out there. I’d just come back from Hawaii and I was full of confidence. I’d always envisioned sitting behind Lowers and pulling in on take-off and it was the first time I was able to play with that line at such a big size.
I’m learning not to take it too seriously when it’s small and crowded. I’d gone insane if I didn’t. I’ve always tried to look out for my sister and other groms out there, make sure they aren’t taken advantage of by the crowd, just as the older guys did for me. The most frustrated I’ve ever been out there was watching a fully grown man blatantly burn my sixteen-year-old sister who had waited her turn. He genuinely took a look, saw her and went. He cooked her until the end of the wave and flicked off right next to me and I lost it. I’ve never felt like that before. I hope he felt like a man, preying on a young girl for his own benefit. The funny thing was I sent him on his way and waited for my sister, then the bloke paddled all the way to the peak and sat right next to my Dad (the mellowest guy ever), who turned to him and calmly said ‘So what, we burning little girls out here now, are we?’ before the rest of the peak chimed in and sent him packing.